First of all, I hope wherever you are on this planet, you’re enjoying weather better than the revolting mix of sleet, freezing rain, and ice that the greater Baltimore region has been “enjoying” this week. Snow I’ll welcome, but nobody likes ice and freezing rain. The only good thing about such weather is that it does make you want to curl up with a good book once you get home…or maybe even several.
There are times when I focus almost completely on a single book, and there are times when I spread myself insanely thin across several books at once. I am currently in one of the latter periods, juggling five books at once. At night I pile them around, reading 20 or so pages from this one and then from that one. Sometimes I only read 10 pages from a given book a night, or I’ll become engrossed in one particular book and end up barreling through 50-70 pages in one of them.
Also, except for volumes of contemporary poetry that I consume at a rate of about one a month, I’ve stuck pretty religiously to women’s 20th century fiction and memoir for the last seven months or so. This is the first time I’ve really deviated from that significantly.
My first pick for the month is James Baldwin’s seminal essay The Fire Next Time. I have one of those Library of America hardback editions of his essays that are so tempting on the Barnes and Noble shelves:
We are so lucky that Baldwin lived in the era of television and that both TV producers and Baldwin himself were willing to have him exposed to larger audiences via the medium on a regular basis. Because there is so much footage and so much recording of his iconic voice, I could hear his voice in my head as I read his words. Those words still hold great power, and I found myself applying them to our current experiences again and again. I will probably read Notes of a Native Son next.
Fast forwarding about 50 years, I also tackled Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Identity, Womanhood, Love, and So Much More this month as well. What a wonderful memoir – heartbreaking, funny, smart, thoughtful, and written with great clarity.
She has this wonderful way of weaving gender theory into her story, but in a very straightforward way, using her own life as a very extended case study: “Here’s what happened to me, and do you see how that’s an example of what it’s so dangerous when we such-and-such as a culture?” In this way she explains the impact of experiences like childhood sexual abuse, survival sex work, and transgender discrimination in a manner that is really easy to understand, much more so than any Gender Politics academic tome (much as I personally love and own academic tomes!).
Then I’ve got two novels cooking, and one of them actually is from the 20th century! Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine (her debut novel) and Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State. Both are supremely wonderful, in different ways. I would rush through Jonah’s Gourd Vine if I were not intentionally forcing myself to slow down and enjoy the ride. It may be Hurston’s first novel but she’s already in control, demonstrating that exuberant love for her characters that makes a Hurston novel what it is.
The setting is early too – so soon after slavery that some of the characters in the novel have to be reminded by the other characters that Emancipation has occurred and they need not refer to Mr. Pearson, owner of the old plantation, as “master” any longer. The novel follows John Buddy (known eventually as John Pearson) as he grows into manhood working for Mr. Pearson, marries his first love Lucy Potts, chases women, gambles, and eventually settles in Eatonville, Florida (conveniently, a town with which Hurston was well acquainted!).
An Untamed State is brilliant too, but in a devastatingly painful way. Set in Haiti, there is unspeakable violence that starts the novel off right away, so it’s been a slow pace for that one too (albeit for a different reason), despite the obvious skill with which it has been written.
And finally, amidst all these wonderful books, I also finished, in two sittings, one of the strongest poetry books I’ve read in years. YEARS. Y’all, this is a wonderful time for contemporary poetry. I’ll say more about this book and the state of contemporary American poetry in my next post, but this TIANA CLARK BOOK RIGHT HERE. I just wasn’t ready for how good it was!
Until next time, happy reading everybody!